An uncomfortable but inevitable question recently appeared as a text message on my phone: “What do you think about the Confederate statues being taken down?”
How does a pastor respond to such a text with brevity and wisdom? I thought long and hard about my reply because, in our current cultural climate, a text message can be so easily misinterpreted and distributed virally that it may actually be wiser to thumb-type these important words: “I’ll get back to you.”
Nevertheless, I fully trusted the person who would read my response, and I hammered out some statements woefully void of a great deal of theologizing. After a few more minutes of pondering, my mind’s browser finally sprang to life and pulled an old file that contains a wise prayer first uttered by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”
I thought, “This prayer says exactly what I’m thinking!” Let me elaborate based almost primarily upon Niebuhr’s prayer and general line of thought.
The problem with “I’m not racist”
When it comes to recent racial tension and chaos in our nation, we simply must face the fact that we cannot change the history of American racial tension. It is useless either to tear down or to prop up statues of Confederate soldiers if doing so is simply an act of guarding a group’s power and pride. Perhaps, then, a re-engagement with our American history is needed now more than ever.
For example, I highly recommend a groundbreaking book called “Divided by Faith” by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, sociologists at Rice University. Through extensive research, Smith and Emerson theorize that a majority of both black and white evangelical Christians in America today engage in something called “racialization.” Racialization refers to the social constructs of a given society or group which exclude others based upon economic, political, racial, lingual or physical differences.
Smith and Emerson suggest that most of our racialized activities come out of a basic ignorance of ways to appropriate love for our neighbors. For example, we could be quite mistaken when we say, “I’m not racist!” just because we do not seemingly act like our ancestors in the pre-Civil Rights era. Saying “I’m not racist” is simply like putting on a fresh suit of clothes that dolls up the hidden agenda of self-promotion. We oftentimes dress up in the right and acceptable language of our peers in order to gain acceptance with them, yet the heart can remain unchanged and soiled.
One must search deeply within the recesses of his/her heart to find that all of us need redemption and mercy when it comes to the race issue. There is a tension between good and evil in all of us. We cannot fix a problem by saying, “I’m not racist.”
The problem with education
Further, we seem somewhat powerless to change the ineffectiveness of educational and political models in the current national crisis. In other words, our efforts at educating the masses, especially children and youth, are not keeping up with the social problems of the times. It is not enough for us to say, “Education through the schools and universities can fix this.” Increasing support for our educational systems is certainly worthy of our time and effort, but we are in desperate need of new wine and new wineskins.
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Take, for instance, my educational journey. It was not until well into seminary training (master’s degree courses) that my peers and I had to face down directly our racial tendencies and, as well, racialized ways of leading churches.
In fact, it was after reading Taylor Branch’s three epic historical volumes about Martin Luther King Jr. that I finally can see where statues of General Lee may be more than a bit disturbing to my black brothers and sisters! Why did it take me that long to figure it out? I dare say it was because of a few educators who dared to ask the hard questions about life rather than teaching us facts simply for us to pass a test.
What then can we change?
Fortunately, there exists some recommendations for fighting the fiery brand of racism raging across our nation today.
First, may we note some sharp and distinctive ironies at work in our culture? For instance, there seems to be a large group of citizens who desperately desire to be left alone, to isolate themselves in order to be responsible citizens. The irony, however, is that isolationism does anything but encourage a responsible citizenry.
We see this kind of thing at work on a much smaller scale in some family environments. The mantra is: “If the problem is not discussed in the home, then it must not exist.” Just because we hide behind our big doors and gated neighborhoods does not mean we have solved the problems of conflict within the community. Engagement with others beyond the scope of social media and insignificant surface interactions is desperately needed in our society today.
Consider another irony that many of us in America today equate happiness with making ourselves comfortable. If we follow this line of logic, then dealing with racism would be easily solved by throwing more resources, namely money, at the incongruities of our lives. This is apparently why our culture is so overly consumed with materialism and with blaming neighbors, politicians, educators and ultimately God for not providing the resources to make us happy.
I’m discovering, though, that the equal distribution of resources may never provide fulfillment of human life in a given society. Not that we should always keep the rich richer and make the poor poorer, but our current methods of accommodation seem particularly unrealistic at this point. Money and governmental administrations will not solve our problems, and we should cease looking to these as the primary outlets of life support. There are deeper spiritual problems afoot other than leveling the economic playing field of society through political models.
The solution: Seek wisdom
Second, we should consider changing our methods of arbitrating conflicts where those who have more money, political prowess or shrewder negotiating tactics seize power and dictate the majority’s opinion. Dr. Niebuhr again: “The question which confronts society is how it can eliminate social injustice by methods which offer some fair opportunity of abolishing what is evil in our present society, without destroying what is worth preserving in it, and without running the risk of substituting new abuses and injustices in the place of those abolished.”
In other words, those who seek to deal with our current problems run the risk of using tactics that look eerily similar to those they decry as abhorrent. Isn’t it something that we oftentimes look more like our enemies than we care to admit?
May the Lord give us great wisdom at this point to love him above all and love our neighbor as ourselves.
So, let us pray for God’s grace to accept what we cannot change, to change for the betterment of our neighbors what we can while we still have time, and may we obtain wisdom to know the difference between the two.
James Hassell is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas.